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Marine robots on a mission to explore our seas


As someone approaching my 40th year with what seems like increasing speed, I feel I’m young enough to have a relatively good grasp of modern technology but perhaps old enough to be increasingly amazed at the rapid pace of its development. For someone of my age, a robot is Metal Micky from Rent-a-ghost or C-3PO or R2-D2 from (the original) Star Wars. But now I have a new robot in my life – Thomas the marine robot, and I think he’s far more impressive than the robotic heroes of the 70s and 80s.

Meet Thomas, the marine robot in my life

Thomas is bright yellow, light and well-designed so he can float on water,  four metres in length, less talkative than C-3PO but far better equipped for heralding a new era in marine research and helping to ensure the secrets of the seas are revealed.

A WWF panda toy hitches a ride on marine robot Thomas © Fergus Kennedy/Skylark/WWF-UKA WWF panda toy hitches a ride on marine robot Thomas © Fergus Kennedy/Skylark/WWF-UK

I met Thomas for the first time in August 2015 when WWF-UK began a partnership with the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton to support the use of innovative robotic technology to explore ‘biodiversity hotspots’ in UK seas. Thomas’ first mission for us was to set out from Milford Haven in Wales with his pal Drake the submarine glider, but despite weeks of preparation, tests and weather-watching, unfortunately at the final moments he met some technical troubles and had to head home. Along with all the excitement of using very novel and innovative technology, the downside is of course that when you’re at the cutting edge, things can go wrong.

Thomas – take two

Final preparations to send marine robot Thomas off to sea © Fergus Kennedy/Skylark/WWF-UKFinal preparations to send marine robot Thomas off to sea © Fergus Kennedy/Skylark/WWF-UK

Fast forward to May 2016, and here we are watching a revived Thomas head out on his own from Newlyn, Cornwall to the seas around the Isles of Scilly. There, Drake will meet him and together they will spend two weeks exploring the area. They are visiting an ‘ocean front’; where two water masses meet, an area that results in increased abundance of plankton, which leads to more fish, which leads to more seabirds and more of the charismatic species such as dolphins, porpoises and even whales

Thomas is well equipped for his mission. He has five cameras on board collecting images and video, both on the surface and underwater, sensors to detect underwater noise such as from vocalising whales, dolphins and porpoises, and to measure temperature, salinity and chlorophyll levels (used as a way of measuring the amount of plankton in the water).

There’s also been a new development in technology since our attempted trip in August of last year. Thomas can now send back the images he collects in real-time by satellite. This means that the technical team and scientists back at ‘mission control’ in Southampton can use the information in the photos as well as from the scientific data to make continuous adjustments to where Thomas and Drake go to collect the most exciting information.

Drake has the capability to move up and down, diving in the water column to enhance the information from Thomas and give a truly 3D picture of our seas. They’re a pretty impressive pair. Together they give a degree of flexibility that isn’t possible with traditional research using large ships.

The future is  (marine) robotic

Marine robot Thomas at sea © Fergus Kennedy/Skylark/WWF-UKMarine robot Thomas at sea © Fergus Kennedy/Skylark/WWF-UK

With each mission more is learned about robots and what can be achieved as well as learning more about our seas. We seem to be getting closer to a future where robots like Thomas and his friends will be able to monitor and survey seas around the world in a cost-effective way, giving us the information we need to ensure we properly protect our seas and manage the activities that impact upon them. I’m sure even C-3PO would be jealous.

Why not keep an eye on Thomas’ journey

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